Fifteen years after a certain red-haired student gave it to her for Valentine's Day, Ginny Osbourn clutched a little red sequined heart one last time and gave it back.
It wasn't easy, Osbourn said, but it was far easier than what Rob Struble, now all grown up, has done the past four years of his life.
The exchange was part of an emotional assembly at Soda Creek Elementary School on Friday, where Steamboat Springs native Struble was welcomed home from his military service in a gymnasium packed with students, teachers, family and friends.
Struble was honorably discharged from the Army less than two weeks ago after more than four years of service. That service included a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and recent combat duty in Iraq.
A student-made banner proclaiming "Welcome Home, Rob" dangled from the school's stage, just below a more permanent banner telling students to "Do the Right Thing." Struble's been doing the right thing since he was a student in Osbourn's first-grade class, said his former teacher, who organized the assembly.
"Rob was always a very kind, very wonderful student," Osbourn said while introducing Struble to the students. "He was a very humble, very honest and always the do-right kid."
After a hug from her, Struble, 22, took the microphone from his former teacher and answered questions from the students, many of whom gazed upon him as their newest hero.
He joined the Army out of love of country and to get ahead in life, he told the kids.
While in Iraq, he was a combat engineer, performing duties that included landmine warfare, demolitions, battlefield destruction, and search-and-reconnaissance missions. Some work shifts lasted longer than 72 hours, or three days, at a time, and his "beds" ranged from the top of his Humvee to under it, and just about anywhere else he could grab a wink of sleep.
"There were a lot of things I missed (while) I was over there," said Struble, wearing his Army dress coat.
He learned to appreciate washing machines and home-cooked meals. He also met some of his best friends while in the Army, and they were friendships forged by complete reliance on one another.
"I have some friends still in Iraq," Struble said.
Plenty of tears were shed during the assembly, including from his two younger sisters, Shelby and Madison.
Madison read a poem she wrote about the American flag, and then presented one to her brother. Shelby gave her older brother a basket of letters written to him by elementary school students.
Even Struble had a hard time controlling his emotions.
"I don't know how much to thank you guys for this," he told the audience.
He has visited several schools since returning to Steamboat, and on each visit, he has been asked good, tough questions by students.
"It's really difficult to explain to them how war works," he said afterward.
It's a war he can still feel, even in the relative safety of Steamboat. Though he resents the media's attention to ongoing attacks against U.S. soldiers, Struble said he can't help but listen to what units are involved.
When asked how people can support the troops, the former soldier offered a variety of options, including sending letters. But when he suggested that people remember to thank veterans of any war, Struble could barely stifle the tears.
"Just a handshake and a 'thank you' goes a long way," he said.
The assembly ended with the students singing "We Appreciate You," and shortly afterward they filed out a side door, where Struble knelt and shook hands or gave high-fives to kids who saw in him a hero -- students including fourth-grader Cody Martinez.
"I thought it was pretty brave to go down there and fight in Iraq," Martinez said, his friends nodding in agreement. "I wonder what football team he likes."
As for the little red heart Osbourn has kept for nearly two decades, it's better off with Struble, she said.
"It was hard to give it up because I treasured it," she said. "I want him to know it's a symbol that he's always in my heart."
-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234
or e-mail email@example.com